“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes,” remarked former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. “It is very easy to say yes.”
You don’t have to be a leader to wrestle with saying no. Regardless of role, responsibility, title, or position, many of us find ourselves wanting to decline a request for our time, but we don’t know how to say no assertively.
And yes, you can say no to a request, because a request is not a command. A request is an ask to which we can say "yes", "no" or make a counteroffer, while a command assumes an obligation. However, we often think of requests as commands, sometimes due to the tone in which the request is made, or a power differential, or our fear of the other person's reaction, or even a feeling of indebtedness.
Nevertheless, while we all know that “no” is a complete sentence when it comes to responding to a request, we often wrestle with being too passive (when we want to avoid conflict or hurt feelings), too aggressive (when we worry our needs will be ignored), or even passive-aggressive (when we’re feeling manipulated, punished or otherwise concerned that an honest or direct approach won’t work).
A passive approach to saying no might sound like “Ok, I’ll do it…this time” when we don’t want to do it this time (or at all). Or it could sound like, “Maybe I can” when you already know that you can’t or don’t want to say yes.
An aggressive reaction to a request for our time might range from asking “Are you deaf? I said no!” to “Not in a million years” or even “What makes you think I would want to do that?”
A passive-aggressive response can sound like “Fine” (when you’re anything but). It can also sound like, “Do I really have a choice?” It also shows up as “I’ll get back to you” and you don’t, or “Yeah, sure, I’ll be there” and then you “forget” to show up.
As much as we don’t want to disappoint, hurt or even anger our customers, clients, managers, direct reports, or friends and family, we can be assertive and firm in our no’s while being flexible enough to keep the door open for future yeses. This requires us to be clear and honest about our own needs and preferences (to do something else with our time and energy) while honoring the needs and preferences of others (to be heard, to feel appreciated, to stay connected, to avoid shame, to maintain their dignity in the face of rejection, etc.).
Here are 20 ways to say no assertively to a request for your time: